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With The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic, a collection of six fairy tales set in the fantasy Grishaverse of her previous novels, author Leigh Bardugo serves up a challenge to disrupt the tropes that stifle us with a deliciously decadent dose of gingerbread, wood smoke, and fox-fur coats. With its beautiful illustrations by Sara Kipin and Bardugo’s talent for vivid imagery and multi-faceted characters, the book is a delight to read despite its oftentimes dark themes.
Reading the stories is like visiting a favorite haunt of your youth and finding it familiar yet changed. Each one is reminiscent of well-known fairy tales—”Beauty and the Beast,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Little Mermaid”—but extols modern virtues: tell inconvenient truths, know your worth, look past the surface. For example, in the first story of “Amaya and the Thorn Wood,” when plain Amaya hesitates to undertake the doomed task to plead with the beast in the woods to stop ravaging her country’s herds, her grandmother tells her, “Come now, Amaya. You know how the stories go. Interesting things only happen to the pretty girls; you will be home by sunset.” Full of irony and eminently quotable, the collection successfully attempts to empower and reveal.
But it is also very dark at times. As much violence as there was in the original fairy tales, the depravity in some of Bardugo’s stories still shocked me. I quickly turned from thinking how wonderful it would be to read these stories with a sharp-witted girl to worrying that some unsuspecting auntie would buy the book for a middle grader. The darkness isn’t explicit or gratuitous, but subjects like cannibalism and munchausen by proxy may be better suited for more mature audiences.
As the characters in Bardugo’s earlier work Shadow and Bone discover, darkness calls for a balance of light, and there is plenty in The Language of Thorns to soften the dark edges. Sara Kipin illustrates the stories in the borders of each page so that a new detail is added to the illustration with each page turn. Then, each story finishes with a full-spread illustration done in a classic fairy tale-ish style. The characters and themes also include diverse perspectives. Because “Amaya and the Thorn Wood” is set in the fictional Novyi Zem, the characters in the story are dark skinned, and a central character in one of the stories is gay. This attention to inclusivity is welcome in our modern era just as much as the book’s other themes of truthfulness and authenticity.
Whether you are new to Bardugo’s work or a long-time fan, I recommend adding The Language of Thorns to your bookshelf for those dark and stormy nights when only a tale that stirs the pot will do.
Rating: 4 Stars (Really Liked It)